Practicing listening

Listening comprehension is by far the hardest of the four modes of communication to acquire. Long after I felt comfortable reading a newspaper, writing an email, or asking someone for directions in Portuguese, I still struggled to understand even simple sentences of spoken Portuguese. It’s important to realize that listening, like any other part of language learning, requires regular practice. It requires a specific type of practice, actually – one that I had been neglecting.

A lot of people say you should just watch a lot of movies or listen to the radio to acquire listening comprehension, but I think that’s a bit naive. Passively listening to something that is way beyond your level or much too fast for you to process will not magically improve listening comprehension by osmosis, it will only make you frustrated.

Active Listening

The solution is to do a lot of what is called active listening. To do active listening, you need your full attention, you need some type of dictionary at your disposal, and you need media that is appropriate to your level. Something slow enough and simple enough that you can process at least part of the content. Ideally, it would be something just a little more advanced than where you are now, though in practical terms it is hard to find resources for every stage of learning, particularly for beginners.

So for a beginner, this might mean just concentrating on picking out familiar words at first. Intermediate learners will focus on picking out phrases, and then entire sentences. It’s definitely ok if you don’t understand every word.

When you are actively listening, you should find a recording that is short (1 to 5 minutes), and you should listen to it at least three times. The first time, listen to it all the way through without stopping. Even if you don’t understand a lot of it, focus on understanding the major themes or the gist of the piece. The second time through, work your way through slowly, stopping and rewinding as needed – sometimes I have to listen to a phrase 10 times before it clicks and I recognize the words. Look up important words that you don’t know. As you work out the phrases, write them down and try to create a transcription. It’s ok if there are holes in your transcript, but write down as much of it as you can. Then listen to the whole thing again a third time, without stopping. If there are still missing parts you’d really like to understand, consider submitting your clip to have it transcribed on RhinoSpike.

Make this kind of exercise a regular part of your studies. Find a news site, podcast or youtube channel that you like and commit yourself to actively listening to one program/song/video a day. It’s easier to stay focused when you find media that appeals to your other interests. Keep it up for a year, along with your other portuguese studies, and your listening comprehension will improve dramatically.

Here’s a few more tips, and then I’ll suggest some places where you can find interesting audio and video to practice your listening:

Mais devagar, por favor! (Slower, please!)

Brazilians love to speak fast – and this can make listening comprehension really tough, because words tend to run together in an unintelligible stream. Much like English speakers, Brazilians also tend to clip off the ends or beginnings of words (Witness how “Você está indo para o mercado?” becomes “Cê tá indo pro mercado?” or how “Deixe eu ver” becomes “Xô ver”). This is extra frustrating because even if you know all the words a speaker is using, you could wind up not recognizing them in practice.

During a face-to-face conversation, sometimes the magic key is simply to ask a speaker to slow down. A simple “Desculpe, não entendi. Podia falar mais devagar, por favor?” is a great phrase to have ready on the tip of your tongue. When you ask Brazilians to speak more slowly and clearly, you’ll be amazed how much more you understand.

Sotaques não são todos iguais (All accents are not the same)

Another thing to consider is that some regional accents are easier than others to understand. When I was in Rio for the first time, I found the thick Carioca accent to be particularly unintelligible – even though I’d been specifically studying the way people from Rio talk! I would ask someone a question in very natural-sounding unhesitating Brazilian Portuguese, and then look at them apologetically when I couldn’t make heads or tails of their response – even when it was something as simple as “No, you pay over there”. But when I would meet a Brazilian from São Paulo or Curitiba, it was like they spoke a whole different language, one which I could actually understand and converse with them in.

You’ll probably find that you understand some speakers easily but with others you can’t understand a word they’re saying. That’s natural, and it’s important not to get frustrated, and to search for media with speakers that are easier for you.

On that note, one suggestion I have is to search for media featuring female speakers. This might seem like an unusual suggestion, but I’ve noticed that Brazilian women often speak more slowly, and they intonate more — sometimes a lot more. Their speech cadence tends to draw out every syllable, which can make it easier to understand them. Brazilian men, on the other hand, frequently speak in a fast, mumbled stream, clipping off the unstressed ends of words so that it becomes difficult to recognize even words that you already know.

Retardá-lo! (Slow it down!)

One great way to slow down recorded speech to an intelligible level is to use software like the Amazing Slow Downer (very simple to use, but costs $50 for the desktop version or $15 for the iPhone app) or Audacity (more complicated but free), which can slow down the speed of any audio file without changing the pitch. I often use ASD to slow down audio book mp3s to a more manageable rate. You can use it for youtube videos too, but first you have to grab the audio and turn it into an mp3 – there’s a bunch of free services that will do this for you.

Legendas em português (Subtitles in Portuguese)

Try to find videos and films with subtitles (legendas) in Portuguese, not English. This will give you a crutch to help you process what you’re hearing, but it will keep you focused on the sound of the language, without allowing you to cheat as with English subtitles.

14 Resources for Listening Practice

Thanks to the web, there’s more ways than ever to practice listening when you don’t have a native speaker available. The important thing is not to get overwhelmed by options. Find the ones that appeal to your interests and commit to actively listening to one thing every day. Here are some resources that I have personally used:

1. For beginner and intermediate students, the publisher’s website for the textbook Ponto de Encontro has dozens of audio clips with speakers speaking at a very leisurely rate. There’s no need to own the book to access the clips.

2. The Semantica Series 1 and 2 videos are great practice for beginner and intermediate/advanced speakers, respectively. The conversations are scripted but the acting and production are very good. Shot on location in Rio, these videos are a great opportunity to hear the distinctive carioca dialect spoken by residents of Rio. Every video is transcribed in both English and Portuguese and intermediate-level grammar is highlighted.

3. UT Austin’s BrazilPod team has two sites filled with videos of native speakers conversing and speaking in a very unscripted manner. The videos are transcribed in both Portuguese and English and interesting usage points are highlighted. ClicaBrasil (see my review), is designed for intermediate students and features a comprehensive set of exercises, readings, videos and grammar instruction. Conversa Brasileira (see my review) is for quite advanced students and contains videos of Brazilians conversing with each other. Also check out their video archive of Portuguese Communications Exercises.

Radio

4. You can listen to almost any Brazilian radio station streaming online, either from their website or via an iphone app like Radio X3. Brazilian radio djs tend to speak very fast and colloquially, so it might be a challenge to keep up. Also, don’t be surprised to hear more American music than Brazilian music on many FM stations. I personally enjoy listening to Rádio Cultura, part of the wonderful Cultura Brasil family, which has interviews and music segments featuring Brazilian musicians and artists in all styles.

5. CBN has standard AM news radio fare, including coverage of futebol games.

TV

6.  There are many ways to watch Brazilian tv over the internet. The site wwiTV has 64 different Brazilian stations you can watch. The aforementioned Cultura Brasil has great tv segments, but I also particularly like Globo Rural, which has hundreds of news segments on environmental and agricultural issues from the rural parts of Brazil, as well as tasty recipes. The anchor and reporters all speak fairly clearly. BBC Brasil also has world news videos with very clear speakers. And the Globo.tv iPhone app lets you watch hundreds of short clips from dozens of shows – documentaries, telenovelas, news programs, reality shows, cooking shows, you name it.

Websites

6. PortuguesePod101.com has hundreds of podcast-style audio lessons that provide excellent listening practice. I especially recommend the intermediate and advanced lessons. The intermediate level lessons contain dialogs that are presented at normal speaking speed and at half speed, followed by an explanation of the vocabulary and the grammar in English. The advanced lessons are spoken ‘essays’ about Brazilian culture, entirely in Portuguese. A subscription is required to access most of the upper level content.

7. LibriVox hosts free audiobook versions of 49 public domain books in Portuguese

8. RhinoSpike is a website where users submit written texts that they would like to have read aloud by a native speaker. At first I didn’t think this would be terribly useful to me, but while browsing the list of recorded texts, it occurred to me that this is actually an amazing resource for listening practice! Where else can you browse a large list of recordings in Portuguese, spoken slowly and clearly by native speakers, with a perfect transcript available (perfect since the speakers are reading the text word for word)? Advanced students could listen to just the audio, only consulting the transcript when necessary. Intermediate students can read the text while listening to the audio, which is a great way to build comprehension. The texts vary from song lyrics to short sayings to longer passages from websites. There are about 200 recordings available as I type this. Another neat feature of RhinoSpike is that you can submit audio that you would like to have transcribed by a native speaker.

9. Português com Humor is a podcast/blog that advanced students might enjoy, though it isn’t designed specifically for PLE (português como língua estrangeira) learners. It’s an interesting look into the sort of language issues that confuse native speakers — accent marks, onde vs aonde, eu vs mim. The podcast discussion is native-level, but I still found the two speakers pretty easy to understand and fun to listen to.

Web videos

10. Check out the TED Talks São Paulo videos for listening exercises on some fascinating topics. The speakers have various accents but they tend to speak clearly, and you can turn on Portuguese subtitles on the youtube versions.

11. Floresta faz a diferença, a campaign to stop the gutting of a law that protects forests in Brasil, has a youtube channel full of short clips on environmental subjects.

12. The Brazilian airline TAM has some good videos about air travel on youtube.

Songs

Música popular brasileira (MPB) is a genre of music written by Brazilian artists from the late 1960s up to the present. MPB songs tend to feature well-known singer-songwriters; they mix rock, pop and samba influences; and they contain meaningful, well-crafted lyrics. For all these reasons, I think MPB music is a great vehicle for learning Portuguese, as well as quite beautiful in its own right.

13. letras.terra.com.br is one of my favorite sites for listening to this type of music. It has a huge collection of  songs, and you can watch the video and read the letras (lyrics) all on the same page (and get the chords if you’re a musician). Some of my favorite musicians in this genre are Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Cássia Eller, Ana Carolina, Seu Jorge, João Gilberto, Jorge Bem, and Gilberto Gil. Chico, Caetano, and Jorge in particular produced a number of classic albums in the 1970s that defined the sound of MPB. Some of Chico Buarque’s most haunting songs (Cotidiano, Cálice, Construção) were masterful critiques of the harsh life under the military dictatorship, with poetic lyrics designed to evade government censors using word play and metaphor.

13. National Geographic hosts a large channel of music videos by Brazilian MPB/pop artists.

Speaking of music, on Fernando Nonohay’s Fun with Brazilian Portuguese blog, he regularly features music videos which he has transcribed and translated.

Writing practice

Writing for me is one of the most fulfilling ways to study portuguese, because it’s where I get to spend time really engaging productively with the language. For me it is where all my dúvidas (doubts) about the language pop up, all those little nagging grammar and spelling and usage questions, and it’s only while writing that I get to take the time to investigate and resolve them.

If during a conversation it’s important to not worry too much about making mistakes, then during writing it’s important to pinpoint those places where you think you might make a mistake and do your best to resolve it. If you don’t have any portuguese-speaking friends or teachers handy, an indespensible book to have on hand is Modern Brazilian Portuguese Grammar by John Whitlam, which is one of my Top 10 resources.

Writing doesn’t have to be a major production – emails to portuguese-speaking friends, blog comments, and facebook posts all provide an opportunity to do a little bit of informal writing.

Writing can also be a way to acquire new vocabulary. Even if you have a great vocabulary, there’s something about sitting down and writing on a topic that makes you realize how many words you still don’t know. But the good news is that those words you end up looking up and then actually using in your writing – they stick with you, far more than words you encounter when reading.

28 Responses to Practicing listening

  1. Paolo says:

    This is a great help – been speaking the language for 6 years now and I still have problems with listening comprehension, especially with Brazilian clients. Keep it up!

  2. David says:

    This is an amazing website. I just wish I had found it earlier. I have struggled for years with just “Teach Yourself Brazilian Portuguese” (which is quite good) and the occasional trip to Brazil. For me, the listening side is the hardest but I think there is plenty on this site that is useful.

  3. Travis says:

    Hi! Love your site! I’m also a Lusophile and wanted to share with you this wonderful site for watching foreign television stations. http://www.wwitv.com By clicking on Brazil or Portugal (or any country, for that matter), you can stream dozens of live TV stations. Makes for phenomenal listening practice for intermediate to advanced students. Plus, I love the cultural aspects. Makes me feel like I’m back in Brasil again!

  4. Dan Bond says:

    Hey. Thanks for all the great info. Lots of great stuff on your site. I was just wondering if you have come across any sites that have audio videos, and then a question and answer section after? I notice the one you linked for “Ponto de Encontro” had audio with questions, but I couldn’t find anywhere with the answers to check I was doing it correctly. Any help would be greatly appreciated as can’t seem to find anything ! Many thanks, Dan

  5. Ricardo says:

    Wonderful blog, and addresses exactly the struggles that many of us face. This post was amazing and pointed me out to many multiple resources that I’m eager to use. I think you missed sites like conversationexchange.com
    Here, you have the possibility to meet native speakers wanting to learn english. You sign up (free), and after exchanging skype information with other members, not only you get to practice portuguese (or any other language) with a native speaker, but you also get to help them with their english practice. Truly a win-win situation. I’ve even made friends on the site, and will get to meet them in person on my next trip to Brazil.
    Many thanks.

  6. Adriana says:

    The blog its pretty cool!!!

    I don´t mind helping you guys to learn portuguese!!

    Let me know if you need help!!

    xxxx

  7. Ivan says:

    Thanks so much for this resource. I have been looking for good online listening activities to assist me in tutoring at the university level, and this website has been a wonderful resource. Thanks for taking the time to synthesize this information! One question… Any experience with good documentaries about Brazil on YouTube or the internet? Maybe something about the history of the country, favelas, Brazilian music, ecosystems, etc. You guys are great!

  8. Renata G says:

    Another good site for português language learning is the defense institute foreign language center – DFLIC. Access it here: https://gloss.dliflc.edu

    I has lots of languages, not just português, and it has levels that can be focused on semantics, listening. Interactive with native content for listening. Check it out.

    Thanks for the blog.

  9. mark says:

    Yes thats exactly what i was thinking, I can read, write and even speak one to one with a person in portuguese as long as they go slowly, but listening to other peoples conversations and quickly translating them back to english or even just making sense of it in portuguese and digesting whats being said, is a lot more difficult to master. I also found some brazillians seem to speak in a muffled accent

  10. Gabriella Fernandes says:

    I am Brazilian and I think “Portuguese is easy”

    Eu nunca pensei que o pessoal de fora tinhainteresse em aprender o português! É tão incrível!
    Tenho 15 anos.

  11. Renata says:

    Hi! Very useful post. I know another very good radio station to learn portuguese, It’s called Nova Brasil FM and there are only brazilian songs and very small advertising. I think it would be a great help because most radio stations here tend to play more american songs than brazilians. This one only play MPB (brazilian modern music) and some news and the announcers speak clearly. You can listen to the hole programming online on this site: http://www.novabrasilfm.com.br/#/?onframe=1
    Just press the “play” button on the right top of the page and enjoy it! Good luck!

  12. Travis says:

    You really should try this radio station: http://www.novabrasilfm.com.br/#/
    There are only brazilian songs and it’s easy to understand what the announcers say.
    Great article!

  13. Maricelli Pena says:

    Hi Lauren,
    I’ve been following your blog for a few months. I am learning European Portuguese and before I discovered your website I was really struggling to find reliable resources. Thanks to your website, I purchased the Michel Thomas Total and Perfect Portuguese, which I enjoyed thoroughly and found them very helpful. I am now following Practice Portuguese and I am learning alot from them as well. Those guys are funny and their podcasts are brilliant. I just listened to the second episode and now understand the difference between “porque, porque (with the circumflex accent on the e….don’t know why my computer isn’t putting on the accent) and por que”. Thank you very much for your dedication to helping people like myself learn Portuguese.

    Thanks also to Travis for pointing out “muito interesse”.

    Best regards,
    MAP

  14. Clayton says:

    Great site. I’m glad I found it, which was by chance. My third year now studying the language and I can read it best, followed by speak it but my listening is really below standard. This will help me lots as I look for new ways to learn how to listen better. But I have o ask you, for my own education, about a sentence you wrote. “Desculpe, não entendi. Podia falar mais devagar, por favor?” Why not “entendo” instead of “entendi”?

  15. Hi there, I enjoy readng through your article. I wanted to write a little comment to support you.

  16. Kyle says:

    Hey Lauren,

    I’m a big fan of your blog. It’s major part of why I became fluent in Portuguese. I wanted to let you know that I remixed all the University of Texas Videos and put them on a separate site (https://streamnative.com). I’m planning on adding more videos soon. Might be a useful addition to this list.

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  18. Robina says:

    I’ve recently found listeningpractice.org to be super helpful. FYI it offers listening comphrension and verb conjugations in many languages. Free and easy to use!

  19. Harry says:

    The link to wwiTV was very helpful. Not only because it allows you to watch Brazilian TV (having lived in Santa Catarina for three months, I’d recommend the ARTV channel), but also because it provides access to the Portuguese channels as well. Comparing the accents is always interesting. Though I admit that I still struggle to understand the Porto accent.

    Anyway, thank you for this extremely helpful website! I’ve been using it since I started learning Portuguese in August 2014 and it’s really helped me to keep an outlook on my next objective. I’ve never had any lessons nor a teacher nor anything like that, but I’ve already achieved (more or less) fluency.

    Muito obrigado.

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  22. Jerin says:

    Here are great websites for listening to Portuguese from Portugal and/or Brazil:
    Há alguns bons sites para escutar Português do Portugal e/ou Brazil:

    http://www.radiosaovivo.net

    http://www.radioonline.com.pt

    They are both extensions of the website, http://www.radiowebsites.org, where you can listen to radio stations from many countries.
    Esses sites são extensões do site, http://www.radiowebsites.org, onde vocês podem escutar ás estações do radio de muitas países

    I hope this helps.
    Espero que essa informação ajude vocês.

    *My apologies if my Portuguese isn’t correct, as it isn’t my first language.
    *Me desculpa se meu Português não é correto. Não é minha primeira língua.

  23. Eddie Júnior says:

    Olá, pessoal!

    Sou brasileiro e nativo da língua portuguesa. Gostaria muito de alguém para praticar inglês comigo. Podemos fazer uma troca, eu te ajudo com o português e você me ajuda com o inglês, beleza?

    Este é meu WhatsApp: +55 (85) 98676 6073

    Valeu, e até a próxima!

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